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There are certain moments that stand out as turned-down pages in the book of life. There are moments when we are met with inconceivable challenges, but are reminded of the reasons we must forge on. There are moments when we pause to reflect on our blessings – not of material wealth or fame – but of our fortune of sharing a portion of our life journey with a true friend who has always served as a beacon of hope in the midst of doubt and confusion. Today, I take that moment – that blessed opportunity – to reflect on a voice of inspiration and a life well lived.
I first met Kevin when we were both students at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York and members of the Big Red Marching Band. Although my fellow trumpet players and I would regularly assert musical dominance on the football field and in parades, the truth was undeniable – the ensemble would have been nothing without the drumline. The drummers were the heartbeat of the band, the pulse of the music, and it was no surprise that Kevin was there, leading the charge. I clearly remember the countless rehearsals and performances when Kevin was the most visible and energetic member of the drumline, standing in the middle of the band with his characteristic curly hair and unsinkable spirit. We jammed to Pinball Wizard, Carry On My Wayward Son, Call Me Al, and other classical rock favorites. As the band’s drill instructor my senior year, I came to associate Kevin with the cornerstone of the freshman class. Nothing could stop his steady rhythm on the quads. No amount of torrential rain, wind-driven snow, or bitter cold could dampen his mood as the band sloshed through the fields and sidewalks throughout the Ivy League. His smile was infectious. His enthusiasm was contagious.
At the end of the football season, Kevin performed at the band’s traditional “Non-Sectarian” closing ceremony, not on the drums, but with his voice. He was the lead singer in our rendition of “Time of Your Life” by Green Day:
Another turning point, a fork stuck in the road
Time grabs you by the wrist, directs you where to go
So make the best of this test, and don’t ask why
It’s not a question, but a lesson learned in time…
It’s something unpredictable, but in the end it’s right…
For what it’s worth it was worth all the while…
Over a year before time directed Kevin to his life’s major turning point, he had already embraced the ideal of making the best of each test that life presented him. He never asked why, because it was never a question to him. Each challenge was only a lesson to be learned in time. No matter how unpredictable life became, Kevin always cherished every moment and lived as if each day would be his last. Each day was worth all the while. As he sang this often-played but rarely-understood song, Kevin’s voice carried across the room, and his fellow band members gathered to sing along, some shedding tears of joy:
In addition to Kevin’s passion for music, I will never forget his love for severe storms and winter weather. His interest motivated him to consider switching majors from engineering to meteorology, and he enrolled in a weather analysis and forecasting class that I TA’ed in the spring of 2007. His favorite type of weather was snow, and nothing could get him more excited than to wake up to several inches of snow on the ground with flakes drifting through the air. We had our fair share of snow-related adventures, which usually involved a combination of flight delays and driving each other to and from some airport. I remember accompanying Kevin to the Elmira regional airport to catch his flight home one winter while attempting to beat a developing snowstorm, only to discover that his flight was canceled. On our way back, we became nearly stranded in the rapidly rising snow drifts and had to push my Toyota Corolla up a hill in order to make it back home.
After moving to Oklahoma for grad school in the summer of 2007, I returned to Cornell for homecoming the following year. At the end of the weekend’s festivities, Kevin drove me to Syracuse to catch my return flight to Oklahoma. Of course, the flight was delayed, and Kevin spontaneously offered to wait patiently – for hours – at a nearby pizza parlor to make sure I would be okay. We joked that we were destined to forever provide each other ground transportation to and from airports. Sure enough, later that year, on my way back to Florida to visit my family, I was stranded at Chicago O’Hare on Christmas Eve due to a major snowstorm… and guess who came to my rescue? As frustrating as it was to be stuck halfway across the country from home on Christmas Eve, the situation was a complete blessing in disguise. I not only spent quality time with Kevin but also met his wonderful family: Dave, Diane, Pooja, and Keerti. They took care of me like family that Christmas Eve. That night, Kevin and I stayed up and discussed our goals and thoughts about life until 4 am. In the midst of the good conversation, we mutually invented a quote to live by:
An insurmountable object, emotion, or thought is nothing more than our reluctance to take up the challenge of trying to understand it.
There are no impossibilities… just things we don’t understand. There are no obstacles… just challenges that are meant to test our resolve. Everything happens for a reason.
Two months later, in February 2009, Kevin was diagnosed with leukemia.
The night I found out about the diagnosis was also the night before a major atmospheric dynamics exam. Let’s just say that I did not do very well on that exam the next day. The shock that came from the news was stunning for all of Kevin’s friends, yet Kevin took it with great courage. In the months that followed, he diligently kept a blog titled, “An Uphill Climb – Confessions of a Leukemic Optimist.” Through his characteristic humor and talent for writing, he made us laugh, smile, and cry. He taught us the greatest lessons of life by living as an example of fortitude in the face of impossible odds. Nothing could bring him down mentally, not even one of the worst diseases that man has ever known.
After struggling for a full year, Kevin went into remission and returned to Cornell to resume his studies in the spring of 2010. He renamed his blog, “A Different Point of View – The Voice of a Philosophical Minority.” He conveyed his message of hope by inspiring others through his own story. But, as fate would have it, his leukemia returned later that summer. He was not able to complete his final semester at Cornell. In a heartfelt message on his blog on July 6, 2010, he addressed his many friends and family who had repeatedly asked him the sacred question, “Is there anything I can do for you?” Kevin responded with these words of wisdom:
Remember that life is fleeting, and there are more important things than grudges or ill wishes. Underneath our different skin colors, yarmulkes, head scarves, or crucifix necklaces, we’re still the same people. We still want the same thing – for people to be nice to us. All I ask of those who want to help me is this – treat your strangers as you would your best friends.
.. We are all forced to share the same planet, like it or not. And we are ALL responsible for that planet, for the sake of ourselves and our children.
So if you want to do something for me, here’s what you can do. Be nice to those you encounter, don’t hold grudges, and please – hold your government accountable. Get involved, make your voice heard…. don’t just believe something because you’re told to, research it yourself and come to your own conclusions. Independent thought is the backbone of an intelligent society, and is what separates us from the mob mentality…
Kevin’s arduous journey lasted for nearly three years, all while making the best out of each moment. Everywhere he went, his positive attitude and enthusiasm permeated the air like a beam of light from a lighthouse, piercing through the fog of uncertainty. He inspired all those around him to be the best that they could possibly be. Kevin’s Delta Phi fraternity brothers established an event at Cornell called, “Shave a Brother to Save a Brother,” where students – many who never met Kevin – shaved their heads to champion the cause of cancer research. They raised over $1,300 for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. In that same season, on May 2, 2009, a girl from Kevin’s high school approached him to say that his story in the local newspaper inspired her to continuing fighting, after she had attempted suicide.
As Kevin’s disease progressed, chemotherapy after chemotherapy, his physical body gradually decreased in strength, but his mental resolve to persevere and make a difference grew exponentially. His favorite quote has always been these words spoken by Mohandas Gandhi, which hung on the wall of his bedroom to remind him of his life’s mission:
Be the change you wish to see in the world.
I visited Kevin at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas during Labor Day weekend of 2011. He was in residence for a clinical trial that did not prove to be fruitful. As I laid next to his bed for two nights, I was struck by how motivated he still was to help others and to devote the remainder of his life to service. He admitted that his strength was not perfect, that he was “not superman.” However, he never uttered a single complaint, nor did he ever say, “this is not fair.” Even as he laid in bed, his words spoke to my heart as a voice of reason, cutting through the darkness of night. “I want to inspire people,” he said calmly but firmly, with his eyes closed. His only fear was that he did not know whether he would have enough time to accomplish his goals of making the world a better place. He expressed his sorrow at this unfortunate possibility as he painstakingly dragged his rolling IV stand across the floor to go to the bathroom.
On September 19, 2011, in his struggles to come to terms with his predicament and after a conversation with his Dad, Kevin shared the following realization with me via Skype:
There is a difference between giving up and admitting defeat. Giving up, you have options left [and have a conscious choice]; admitting defeat is saying you have no options left [and accepting that]. At this point, I don’t have any options left. So I’m not giving up. I will never give up. I will fight to the end, till the last breath, but I will not give up.
A few days later, on September 23, Kevin was released from M.D. Anderson. The clinical trial had failed, and it was time to go home to spend his remaining precious moments with family and friends. Over the course of several weeks, Kevin received over 200 letters from his friends, describing how he had inspired them. Cornell University set up a scholarship fund in his name, to continue his vision of supporting education. DeKalb High School, where Kevin first established his talent in marching band, dedicated their new percussion practice room in his honor, naming it “The Kevin Ballantine Percussion Studio.” On the night of Saturday, December 17, his high school choir showed up at his front yard to sing Christmas carols with white candles in hand – the perfect treat for someone whose favorite holiday was Christmas.
On January 12, 2012, after losing his last bit of energy and not being able to go to the hospital for another blood transfusion, Kevin admitted defeat and said:
I have accomplished all of my goals; I am done, Mom.
Not many of us, even if given 80 years, would be able to say, “I have accomplished all of my goals.” Through the outpouring of love and support from all the people he had inspired, he had finally put to rest his doubts and become convinced that he did in fact make the most of his time on earth. Yet, in that bittersweet moment, Kevin did not give up. He may have admitted defeat, but he still did not give up. At only 23 years old, he had faced intense suffering and had walked through the vale of tears with unparalleled confidence and courage. Kevin’s last wish was for some snow, and he was treated to approximately 4 inches on the ground this past weekend, with snowflakes drifting through the air. Yesterday, after three long years of torture, his painful struggle came to an end.
Kevin passed away peacefully on Sunday morning, January 15, 2012, at around 9:40 am, surrounded by family at home. I would like to ask all who believe in the goodness and strength of the human spirit to offer a silent prayer for the most kind-hearted, positive-thinking, and inspirational friend I could have ever hoped to meet in my lifetime. Kevin is surrounded by the immeasurable love of all those whom he has inspired. As he walks through the valley of the shadow of death, he is not alone. He has nothing to fear.
Today, while we mourn, we also celebrate a life well lived – an example of the best that humanity has to offer. By staying so positive and being so uplifting over the course of several years, even as he faced the biggest life challenges, Kevin has helped countless numbers of people. He thought not of himself, but only of how he could give back to others. He has shown us the value of unity and of overcoming petty human differences. He has shown us the strength of perseverance. He has shown us the art of finding value in even the most difficult of circumstances:
Life is not measured in days or months, but rather in laughter and love.
Through adversity, Kevin’s voice of inspiration did not diminish, but magnified. Through pain, his spirit of fortitude did not wane, but spread. Through life, the temporal manifestation of his desire to help the world did not shorten, but will remain timeless:
If it’s worth the emotion tomorrow, then it’s worth it now. Conversely, if it won’t bother me tomorrow, why let it get to me now? Spread the love, not the hatred or sadness.
Kevin, you have contributed so much to who I am as a person, and I am infinitely grateful that our paths crossed so many years ago, far above Cayuga’s waters. May you truly rest in peace, knowing that the human race is better because you were among us. But your work on earth is not yet finished. On behalf of all of your friends, rest assured that your spirit and motivation will live on as we do our best to be the change that you wished to see in the world. As I promised while holding your hand on the last moment before I left your hospital room at M.D. Anderson, I will do everything in my power to help you fulfill your dream of inspiring people. Somehow, somewhere, sometime, I will follow through with that promise to completion. And when at last, my wearied hands too must lay down the working tools of life, I will hear your drum cadence from above and know thy will is done.
…and when we meet again, just let me know if you need a ride to the airport.
“The best kind of friend is the one you could sit on a porch with, never saying a word, and walk away feeling like that was the best conversation you’ve had.” ~ Unknown Author
Kevin’s wish has always been to contribute to the education of future generations. To help fulfill his wish in a small way, Cornell University has established a scholarship fund in his name. Please consider making a contribution, in Kevin’s memory.
1. Go to https://www.giving.cornell.edu/give/index.cfm
2. Choose “College of Arts and Sciences” in the “Designation” box
3. In the second drop-down menu, select “Other”
4. In the “Other designation” box, type: “Kevin Ballantine Scholarship Fund #0008243”
5. Fill out the rest of the form however you would like
Check payable to:
Kevin Ballantine Scholarship Fund
Fund number: 1845255
P.O. Box 223623
Pittsburg, PA 15251-2623